Use of force advisory board for Denver police struggles with rocky start

For its first two months, a Denver Police Department use-of-force advisory board has been fraught with tension that has included concerns about police manipulating the group, complaints about unorganized leaders, disagreements over where to meet and even name calling among participants.

Things got so bad in June the board took a week’s hiatus to cool off, four participants told The Denver Post. One issue that added to the strain — the police department’s decision to hire Lamar Sims, a former Denver senior chief deputy district attorney who spent more than 25 years investigating police shootings, as a facilitator.

“I would say it was a rough start,” said Denise Maes, public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado. “I think we had meeting No. 8 before it finally became productive.”

Members said members believe the group turned a corner after a second facilitator was hired, and the committee was divided into subgroups to address specific issues. The group also secured a pledge from Chief Robert White to meet with them at the conclusion to listen to their recommendations and to meet again to explain his decisions before releasing a final policy.

Denver police chief Robert White addresses members of the public during a meeting held by the Denver Police Department at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver on Jan. 24, 2017 in Denver.

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Denver police chief Robert White addresses members of the public during a meeting held by the Denver Police Department at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver on Jan. 24, 2017 in Denver.

White assembled the use-of-force advisory committee in April after bowing to community pressure. He and his staff introduced a draft of a new use-of-force policy in January and announced plans to make it official by spring. But that plan was met with criticism from community members, who said they wanted to participate in its development.

“At the end of the day, the people impacted by use of force are the community,” said Alex Landau of the Denver Justice Project. “We continually have to remind them of that. This is a policy that will justify taking a life or injuring someone. We have to constantly push back on things we don’t agree with.”

The department’s use-of-force policy guides when officers can restrain, strike, shock and even shoot people. White wants to update the policy to reflect changing public attitudes toward police use of force with an emphasis on de-escalating volatile situations.

The advisory board, which has members from 20 groups, includes people representing various community groups such as the NAACP, the police officers union and the Colorado Latino Forum. White gave the board a Sept. 1 deadline for delivering a final report.

But Maes said it has taken so long to get organized and for members to jell that she believes the process will take longer than two more months.

“The chief kind of came kicking and screaming to this party,” Maes said. “That’s part of the problem. There was a little mistrust with the community that the police wanted to funnel us to where they wanted to go with this.”

The first meetings were at the Denver police training academy and included sessions inside training simulators where the advisory board members were asked to participate in scenarios where they might have to shoot a suspect. The facilitator was a retired Denver officer, Maes said.

The retired officer was dismissed and Sims was hired, a move that further angered board members. He is being paid $17,000 for his work, according to a copy of his contract obtained through an open records request.

Sims has reviewed police shootings since 1989 and, during his tenure under former District Attorney Mitch Morrissey, no Denver officer was prosecuted for an on-duty shooting. He also served as a consultant in the shooting death of 11-year-old Tamir Rice by a Cleveland police officer. Sims determined the shooting was “objectively reasonable” under the law.

“How do you put someone who defended the shooting of an 11-year-old black child as the facilitator of this use-of-force committee?” asked Lisa Calderon, who sits on the board as part of the Colorado Latino Forum.

Deputy Chief Matt Murray, who attends every meeting and has been instrumental in revising the policy, said Sims brings an expertise on state and federal laws that address policing. “He can provide answers to those questions,” Murray said.

At the advisory board’s urging, the police department added Nita Mosby Tyler, a professional consultant and facilitator. Her contract has not been finalized, so it is not known how much Tyler is being paid.

Tyson Worrell, secretary of the Denver Police Protective Association and a board member, said the group started with no clear direction, organization or guidelines. He thought it would have been useful to include more people with expertise in policing issues. He is the only rank-and-file officer who regularly attends and the only one who can explain the real-life situations that officers encounter.

“Not much progress has been made, and the PPA is disappointed in the format and how the department pieced this together as an afterthought,” he said.

Murray’s involvement also put a cloud over the meetings, Worrell said.

Murray remains under investigation for his handling of a 2016 internal affairs investigation and his response to an open records request related to that investigation. The police union put pressure on city officials to open the investigation.

Maes confirmed that people besides the police union had questioned Murray’s participation.


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  • Murray said he attends every meeting, but only to respond to technical questions about the police department’s operations manual or the chief’s intentions in rewriting the use-of-force policy.

    “I’m not going to offer a personal opinion,” he said. “That’s not my role.”

    Murray acknowledged the group’s slow start.

    “A lot of this has just been them expressing their feelings and frustrations,” he said. “The last couple of weeks we’ve been getting into the meat of the policy.”

    Even though the dissension has put the group behind schedule, Murray said the department wants it to finish its work by the Sept. 1 deadline. Any further delays leave the police force operating under an outdated use-of-force policy, he said.

    “We have a policy in place that doesn’t adequately meet the needs of the city of Denver,” Murray said. “We want to get it done as soon as we possibly can.”

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